Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Barcelona - Part Three (La Sagrada Familia)

Tuesday. The second day of our bus tour of Barcelona. Having again failed to find anywhere suitable for breakfast (we don't manage a single breakfast in the entire week we are here as it turns out) we are heading towards the Olympic Port, the starting point of the bus tour's alternative route.

Our first destination is La Sagrada Familia. This is the unfinished work of the much talked about Antoni Gaudi, the architect who designed pretty much every significant building in Barcelona, and with whom there is something of an obsession in the city and in Catalonia in general. He's even more popular than One Direction and Justin Bieber. Imagine that. Gaudi knew he wouldn't live long enough to finish his last great masterpiece, but it probably still came as something of a shock when he was knocked down by a tram and killed in 1926. He was 74 years old, and probably not quick enough to get out of the way.

What he did manage to do was leave strict instructions to others working on the project as to how the finished article should look. Eighty-eight years later they still haven't quite managed to fulfill his vision, making it about the longest running project since David Beckham started his GCSE in Spanish. Despite it's incompletion, La Sagrada Familia is still open to visitors, and attracts them in their thousands.

There is an enormous queue as we get off the bus and approach the vast building. Queuing creates a most complex dilemma for wheelchair users. To join or not to join? You never quite know what to do. I've been dragged out of queues by fussy staff, looking at me as if I am from Mars for having taken the ridiculous decision to try to wait in line with the 'normal' people, but I have also been left to wait, and wait, and wait, and wait in queues. Both of these extremes took place on the same day in Berlin airport in December 2010, but that is a story you can read elsewhere on these pages.

We decide to play dumb and ask one of the many tour guides patrolling the line about wheelchair access. Then with a nudge and a wink and a 'know what I mean?' we are ushered to the front of the queue and asked to wait by a small turnstile. Earlier, I had noticed that admission to La Sagrada Familia is 16 Euros each. Normally you would have to pay me to go into a place of worship, but this is in the name of tourism and is therefore different. I needn't have worried as the guide is soon opening a small gate and waving us through without any reference to the small matter of paying to get in.

We are now inside the gates, right in front of this ridiculously large structure. La Sagrada Familia is a basilica, as opposed to a cathedral. Despite appearances, La Sagrada Familia is not a basilica because of it's barely credible massiveness. Rather, and since you insist on knowing the difference, a basilica is a place that has received a Papal blessing. All of which means that Pope Benedict the whatever-he-is approves of it on some level and has publicly demonstrated this. Well, he can't fault the architecture. Unless he is overly fussy about the fact that it is not finished, obviously.

To our right is a small kiosk selling headsets. You could, if you were really troubled by the idea of spending an extra 2 Euros, just go inside La Sagrada Familia and try to find your own way around. After all, it's only an overgrown church, right? However, if like us you haven't spent anything yet and are far too lazy to try to work out for yourself what any of it means then you will be well served by picking up a headset. It provides you with an audio guide, although at certain points during the tour mine keeps stopping as if the commentary is being provided by the same people who edited the clip of John Terry shouting obscenities at Anton Ferdinand. That's problematic enough, but when you are in an environment about which you know precisely nothing it makes things all the more difficult.

I'm not into God. Let me tell you about God. Actually, don't. We'll be here all day with me ranting on about how he never makes anything good happen, only the bad, horrendous shit that I have seen happen to others in my life. In any case I have come to the view that God, while his existence is 99.9% impossible, is an effective placebo. God will never physically help you do anything, but if the mind convinces itself that God exists and that He has made wonderful things happen, then in a roundabout sort of way He has. It's like giving an athlete a suspicious looking pill and telling him that it will make him faster and stronger, and then revealing that it was only a sugar pill. Having believed he was taking something to improve his performance, chances are the athlete's perfomance will have improved. Or in the case of one person I know, sucking on a cider lolly at the age of 12 and believing yourself to be innebriated. God works for some people, despite his lack of basis in reality.

Before we even enter the building we take a wrong turn. Outside La Sagrada Familia (which by the way means the Holy Family) is some very uneven terrain. It's accessible only if you are profficient at pushing up mountains. I am a reasonably mobile wheelchair user but I would not have been able to take certain parts of this tour on my own. This includes my visit to the toilet, which involves rolling down a practically vertical drop masquerading as a ramp, while all the while trying to avoid the scores of people coming out of the toilet areas. I've never been absailing with a crowd around me, but if I did I should imagine it would be something like trying to use the disabled toilets at La Sagrada Familia. Anyway, the wrong turn. Had we turned left we would have reached Point 1 on the tour, the idea being to stop there and take in the views of the 'facade' (front) of the basilica while listening to the description and history behind it. Instead we turned right, only because we couldn't see Point 1 and, with no instructions accompanying the headsets we had purchased, had no concept of Point 1 or Point Anything Else until we had missed Point 1. We turned right because the path to the facade and the front door of La Sagrada Familia looked closer and flatter that way. Basic, basic error.

At this point I could describe the breathtaking architecture, the detailed, beautifully crafted sculptures and their religious and historical significance, but like the Grand Canyon and Dirk Kuyt's first touch, it is something which has to be seen to be believed. My describing it here would be entirely superfluous. To summarise, Jesus is fairly well represented, as are Mary and the Wise Men. And Pontious Pilate. Dirk Kuyt doesn't even make the subs bench, which is the way it should be and always should have been.

Once inside the audio tour comes into it's own. The numbered stopping points have started to make sense to me, althouth there is one occasion when we are instructed to leave the basilica by the open door on our right to view something or other, but look to our right to find no open door, or doors of any description. A look in all other directions tells the same story. There are no open doors leading to anything or anywhere. While looking around in a slight state of confusion I am asked by one staff member to remove my hat. Not being a church person I had forgotten that cricket hats aren't really church-going items of headware. Perhaps I should have brought my trilby. Anyway, I remove my hat feeling a little chastened, and never find the open door of which the audio commentary is still speaking. Near the end of the tour we come across a wonderful irony. A lift that is only accessible to people who can walk up a small flight of steps. To give tourists an even grander view of their surroundings, La Sagrada Familia has two towers, each of which is equipped with a lift to carry visitors to a higher vantage point. Yet the steps leading up to the lift's entrance exclude me.

Regardless, I never before thought it possible to spend two hours of any sort, much less interesting hours, in a place of worship. Until now. The tour is informative (in the main) and the architecture is a modern miracle.

And you have to remember we got in free.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Barcelona - Part Two

Monday, May 28 2012.

We're skipping Sunday. It was a day at the beach, which enjoyable though it was, was never going to be an event. A story. The only thing of note that I feel compelled to report to you was the disturbing practice of fat, hairy men paying to have their fat, hairy bodies massaged by women bonkers enough to offer such a service. No, not me. I'm not hairy.

At the risk of over sensitive types accusing me of some sort of racial slur, I nevertheless feel duty bound to point out also that the women offering this service on the beach in Barcelona all looked to have some kind of Far Eastern origin. I don't know if this is significant or not, it is just a fact. To their credit, they at least had the decency to carry out their irksome task with that weary look of 'it's a job' about their features. Job satisfaction is not something these women seemed to aspire to. Which was handy judging by the client list.

And so back to Monday, and the Nou Camp. The home of Barcelona FC is, I believe, the only place we visited on this trip that we had already explored thoroughly on our last visit here in 2009. I wasn't expecting any major changes in the three years since then. As it turns out there are differences, but they are subtle. In any case, you just can't go to Barcelona for a whole week and not visit the Nou Camp, even if you have seen it only three years previously.

One thing that has not changed is the lack of accessibility to the full stadium tour. Actually, I'm taking a slight liberty there. Last time we visited we were not aware that the stadium tour was inaccessible because we visited on a day when it was closed completely due to a U2 concert being staged that night. Yet if it is not accessible now, then it wasn't accessible then and we just didn't know it. Accessibility is a murky area, but we have not quite reached the stage where things that were once wheelchair friendly suddenly become wheelchair unfriendly. Apart maybe from a few women I know.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that it will be the museum only for us (with a small, unexpected bonus near the end). We get this for a more than reasonable 19 Euros, or 9.50 Euros each. To put this into context it is far less than you would pay at Liverpool where the most recent trophy additions are bordering on antiques, or at Manchester United where there are new trophies but also new fans, than whom there is very little worse in football or even in life itself. The kind of people who will support Chelsea this time next year, or who can tell you all about the treble winning team of 1999 but look at you blankly if you ask about Jimmy Greenhoff or Arthur Graham. Who? Doesn't matter.

Getting from our hotel at Avenue D'Icaria to the Nou Camp involves a couple of bus rides, which you would think would cause all manner of accessibility problems. As those of you who have visited these pages before will know I can't go from Lime Street to St.Helens Central without great risk of ending up in Garswood, and anyone who has been to Garswood will feel that pain instantly. Fortunately, Barcelona is one of the better places I have visited in terms of accessible transportation. The number 14 bus stops right outside Hotel D'Icaria and drops us half way down La Rambla, where there is another stop nearby for the city's tour buses. Unlike in Los Angeles, all of Barcelona's tour buses are fully accessible, and so within an hour or so of leaving the hotel we are at the Nou Camp once more.

We have a late breakfast in Pan's, which is like Subway only nice. All around the restaurant there are television screens, some showing music videos and others showing Barcelona games from various eras. During one, Hristo Stoitchkov is abusing a referee using only hand gestures, while in another Rivaldo is performing sporting miracles which do not involve cheating. A double miracle, if you will.

The gangway leading in to the museum has changed, I notice instantly as we begin. Last time there were various exhibits placed in a row running along the centre of the gangway. Now there are only billboards with adverts. Barcelona is a club which prides itself on it's refusal to jump aboard the commercial gravy train currently dominating football, but if anyone knows how to advertise themselves they do. Most of the billboards advertise the club's own merchandise, others advertise goods used by their players. Boots, energy drinks, shirts, training tops, that kind of crap. Barcelona, run by the fans for the fans, is nevertheless as commercially savvy as Microsoft.

It takes a very long time to get around the museum if, like me, you read everything that you can. I have an interest in history, particularly sporting history, even if I seem to have a total and complete inability to retain the information I learn. So it is with great surprise that I discover that Barcelona was founded by Joan Gamper, along with a group of Swiss, English and Catalan footballers. This is why on the club crest you will find the St.George cross along with the Catalan flag. It does not explain why they have not had an English footballer in their ranks since Gary Lineker, who left in 1989 and can now be found delivering clunkingly awful gags with his other matey ex-pros on Match Of The Day. What explains that phenomenon is that firstly English footballers are terrifyingly over-rated, and also that they are equally overpaid here in England. The English Premier League is now the richest in the world and as such, believes itself the epicentre of all club football. Chelsea's recent bus-parking European Champions League win will have done nothing to dispel this kind of mania.

I digress again. Other stories of interest at the Nou Camp museum include the strange case of Enrique Castro Gonzalez. Quini, as he was known, was kidnapped at gun-point on March 1 1981 and held for 25 days. The police arrested one of Quini's captors when he was on his way to collect the ransom money. Shortly after his release, Quini scored twice in the Copa Del Rey final defeat of his former club Sporting Gijon. The following year, he scored the winner in the European Cup Winners Cup Final against Standard Liege of Belgium. Arguably, kidnapping boosted Quini's career significantly.

One of Barcelona's greats of the late 1950's was a chap called Luis Suarez. Suarez was not Uruguayan but Spanish, the first Spaniard to win the European Footballer Of The Year award. He also helped Spain to win the 1964 European Championship, 44 years before the current generation of Spanish players started to take over the world. As far as the available information at the Nou Camp goes, Suarez never racially abused or bit anyone, nor did he ever celebrate the missing of a penalty which he had deliberately conceded by blatantly slapping the ball away from the goal. None of which stopped Barcelona from flogging him to Inter Milan in 1961 when they were a little bit cash-strapped. He is considered one of Inter's greatest ever players, helping them to two consecutive European Cup successes in 1964 and 1965. Barcelona are really just a selling club.

Not really. They are more than a club. The motto says so. 'Mes Que Un' Club is the message written proudly across the seating one one side of this great stadium, used by the club since 1957. There is also Nike tick on the other side. Commercial? Capitalists? No. Anyway, this brings me around to the little bonus I was telling you about earlier. The presence of Bono and his pals scuppered any chance of seeing the inside of the stadium last time I was here. Emma went in for a sneaky peak but she had to use a couple of steps to do so, and when she got there found that the pitch was invisible due to The Edge's tent. Or something. None of that on this day, however. In the three years since we were last here someone has thought to place a small ramp slightly away from the main stadium viewing area, and I am therefore able to get inside the Nou Camp itself for a look around. Feeling only slightly envious of the people I can see walking along the sidelines and off down the players tunnel while on the full tour, I am still happy enough to be able to view one of the best stadia in world football from an ideal vantage point high up in one of the stands. As much as I love Saints and Super League, it places a little perspective on nights out at Langtree Park.

We get back on the tour bus to explore the Palau Reial de Pedralbes, which until 1931 was the Barcelona residence of the Spanish Royal family. There is a long, gravelly path leading up to it, and the area is decorated with monuments and fountains of some grandeur. However, this Monday is a national public holiday and so it is shut. The door is almost guarded by a statue of Isabella II, Queen of King Alfonso XII. With a beautiful and curious eccentricity, this site is also the home of a ceramics and textiles museum. Which, this being a public holiday and all, is also shut. We take a short stroll around the grounds and head back, where the only place serving anything edible by the time we re-emerge are the fishy restaurants from Saturday night.

But we pass on the Grappa and the bread.